What’s the cost of passenger trauma? Alaska Airlines values it at $1,500. (2024)

Hours after an Alaska Airlines flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Portland, Ore., when a door plug blew out, passengers received an email from the carrier. It was an apology, a full refund for the aborted flight and $1,500 “to assist with any inconveniences.” Travelers on Flight 1282 are now grappling with whether this amount adequately covers what they endured.

“I haven’t fully processed if that payment is enough or not,” said Nicholas Hoch, 33, who was on the Alaska Airlines flight. “I don’t know how this is going to affect me in the coming weeks and months, you know?”

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What’s the cost of passenger trauma? Alaska Airlines values it at $1,500. (1)

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On Tuesday, Hoch, a Portland-based architect who was traveling to Ontario, Calif., to visit his girlfriend, said he was contemplating the offer while trying to emotionally recover from the horrifying event. In addition to traveling in a plane that cracked open several minutes after takeoff, he spent two hours in line, waiting for a customer service agent to issue him a ticket for a new flight.

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What we know about the Boeing 737 Max 9 accident
  • After the Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 blowout, the FAA’s oversight of Boeing faces new questions.
  • Alaska Airlines passengers are suing Boeing after a door-like panel on its 737 Max 9 plane detached midflight, their attorneys said.
  • The FAA is investigating whether Boeing had potential flaws in its manufacturing process and the role of a key supplier.
  • What happened on the Alaska Airlines flight? Here’s how rapid depressurization occurred.
  • The door plug that blew out of a Boeing plane was found in an Oregon schoolteacher’s backyard, and an iPhone survived a 16,000-foot fall.
  • Alaska Airlines offered passengers $1,500 after the Boeing Max 9 incident, but legal action could reap greater awards.

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The Transportation Department enforces passenger rights and ensures that airlines adhere to their customer service plans in the event of a flight delay, cancellation, lost baggage or other inconvenience. Passengers on Flight 1282 were entitled to these benefits because Alaska Airlines deemed the incident a “controllable issue,” according to the DOT. Travelers affected by the grounding of Boeing 737 Max 9 planes are granted these protections as well, for the same reason.

‘It was eerily calm’: How passengers coped during harrowing Alaska Airlines flight

In addition to the financial compensation, Alaska Airlines also provided passengers with round-the-clock access to mental health resources and counseling sessions from Empathia. Hoch said he has consulted with family members who are therapists and is considering seeing a specialist, which can be costly.

“Just think about if you went to a trauma therapist. How much does $1,500 get you?” Hoch said. “I don’t know, it’s not a lot.

He acknowledged the difficulty of placing a price tag on emotional anguish but said the airline should have consulted with the 171 passengers before deciding on that amount.

“How do they calculate that stuff? How do you come up with $1,500?” he said, adding: “I … and all other passengers should have a voice in how that’s calculated.”

Aggrieved passengers can pursue a lawsuit against Alaska Airlines, a course of action that comes with precedent. Several passengers sued Southwest and Boeing, the plane’s manufacturer, after a 2018 incident in which a piece of the engine broke off and shattered a cabin window. A traveler died after she was partially pulled out of the opening. Travelers are also suing Alaska Airlines over a more recent emergency involving an off-duty pilot who tried to take down a Horizon Air plane. The pilot involved in the October event claimed that he had not slept and had ingested psychedelic mushrooms.

Off-duty pilot accused of trying to cut plane’s engines faces 84 counts

Hoch said he is cautiously considering his legal options but is acutely aware of the David vs. Goliath elements of a case against a multimillion-dollar company stacked with lawyers.

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“You’re going against a bigger machine than you,” he said, “and what [are] the pros and cons of that?”

Seek counseling and legal counsel

Daniel Laurence, an aviation lawyer and partner at the Stritmatter Firm in Washington state, said travelers who were emotionally affected by the incident should seek counseling before pursuing compensation at this stage.

“My advice to every client in every personal injury situation, and particularly in situations like this, is to get well first, to the extent they can,” said Laurence, who is representing several passengers in the Horizon Air case.

Law experts say legal recourse would be premature this early in the investigation. One key question investigators need to answer is which party or parties bear responsibility: Alaska Airlines, which failed to ground the plane despite warning lights from a cabin-pressurization system that appeared on three earlier flights; Boeing, which built the 737 Max 9 plane and inspected its fixtures; or Spirit AeroSystems, which supplied the hardware?

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Ladd Sanger, an aviation attorney and managing partner of Slack Davis Sanger’s Dallas office, said passengers could have a case against Alaska Airlines, Boeing or both companies. He said that, under U.S. law, travelers could file a negligence claim against the airline, the plane manufacturer for delivering a defective product or the maintenance provider for improper upkeep. He said the plaintiffs could seek compensation for emotional or physical damages, such as the loss of a carry-on bag or iPhone, a ruptured eardrum from depressurization or the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the flight, for example.

Here’s how an iPhone survived a 16,000-foot fall from a plane

“Having a door blow off in-flight at 16,000 feet,” said Sanger, who represented passengers on the 2018 Southwest Airlines flight, “it’s a pretty terrifying event.”

Alaska Airlines’ contract of carriage explains its refund policy for a standard flight cancellation, but it does not shed any light on the compensation process in an extreme situation like the one that occurred last week. In an email to The Washington Post, the carrier said it provided each passenger with a full refund, a cash payment to cover “incidental expenses” and complimentary mental health support. The message that Hoch received and shared with The Post did not include the information about counseling assistance.

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Laurence warned passengers not to jump at the money if the airline requires them to waive all of their claims. Though he was not aware of Alaska Airlines including this stipulation, he said recipients should consult with an attorney before signing a document that precludes them from pursuing future legal action. The carrier did not reply to a request about whether its compensation package featured this proviso.

“Airlines, like any for-profit corporation, will try to minimize their exposure and put this behind them as quickly as possible,” said Laurence, who has heard from one Alaska Airlines passenger about legal options. “I think a lot of the time people go through a trauma and they don’t really realize how impactful it may be until later in life, whether it’s weeks or months or sometimes even years later.”

If the case ends up in court, legal experts say the amount of money a passenger could win will hinge on several factors, including proximity to the opening. For instance, a judge or jury may decide that a traveler seated a distance from Seat 26A, the epicenter of the damage, suffered less than a passenger who was sitting close enough to the hole that their iPhone blew out of the plane or their shirt was torn off.

“There is never a fair amount to offer someone who was in fear of losing their life and probably in terror with an open hole in an airplane,” Laurence said. “But in terms of what specific number I think is fair, that’s up to a jury.”

What’s the cost of passenger trauma? Alaska Airlines values it at $1,500. (2024)
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